Here’s the not-very-helpful advice you’ll get when you first start trying to write melodies for songs:
“Sure you can do it! Here’s how you do it: just try lots of combinations of notes until you find some that sound good together! Then put those combinations together into bigger groups until you have a whole melody!”
Now here’s some slightly more helpful advice on the subject: Certain combinations of notes sound better (more musical) when played together than others do. These better-sounding combinations are called chords. If you play a C, D, and E at the same time, it will sound better than if you simply picked three notes at random and played them together. You can also use these chords as a basis for melodies: if you construct a melody mostly from the notes C, D and E, it’s probably not going to be the most exciting melody – but it will sound better than if you just picked notes at random to play, or just kept playing one note like C over and over.
The point of this is not to convince you that I am a musical genius (trust me, I am not) but to talk about using theme in your fiction. Many writers are unsure about how to approach theme in their fiction, or whether they should even be trying. As a result, they frequently end up taking one of two unsatisfactory approaches: they don’t think about theme and the thematic notes they hit are picked at random, or they know one thematic note they want to hit – and simply hit that one note over and over.
There is a much better way to approach theme in your fiction: as you plan your project (or, as you learn during the process of writing it what it is you’ll be writing about) try to find not just one thematic note to hit, but a set of thematic notes, interrelated but distinct, with which to weave a more complicated pattern.
What do I mean by a thematic note, or by hitting those notes? A valid question, so let’s start with the basics. “Theme” is a subject that your work is about, or that it explores. In a love story, to give one obvious example, the subject of love is going to be pretty prominent. (If it isn’t, that’s one weird love story you’ve got there.)
What I’m calling a thematic note, however, is more than just theme: it’s how your work explores its chosen themes. It’s the statements your work makes about the subject. “Love” is a theme. “Love leads you to be a better person,” “Love makes you blind,” “Love gives you strength to heal from pain,” “Love inflicts the cruelest pains,” these are all thematic notes. Whenever you show one of these statements through the action in your work, you’re hitting that thematic note. When you combine thematic notes, especially notes that contrast each other such as “Love gives you strength to heal from pain” and “Love inflicts the cruelest pains,” it’s like basing a melody on the notes of a complex chord.
An example from literature may help explain the difference. The theme of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby can be expressed as “the gap in American society between the wealthy and the merely rich.” The thematic notes Fitzgerald plays are all related to that gap, but all express something different: “The gap between the wealthy and the merely rich is almost impossible to cross,” “The allure of the life lived by the wealthy can hypnotize people into forgetting how unattainable it is,” “The myth that says ‘you can achieve anything in America if you work hard enough’ fools people into thinking they can cross the gap between the merely rich and the wealthy.” Just imagine what a boring book Gatsby would be if Fitzgerald had only played the first of those notes over and over, and the whole book was nothing but Jay Gatsby getting his face rubbed in the fact that he could never truly be part of Daisy’s world. The novel is far stronger as Fitzgerald actually wrote it, with that note certainly being an important part of the composition, but hardly the whole of it.
The actions and the fates of your major characters are the strongest way you can hit a thematic note. Suppose you are writing about a lawyer named Henry, whose weight problem is getting worse as he heads into middle age, and the main plot of your book is about the love he finds unexpectedly with Nancy, who he first meets as a client. If Henry manages to resist the midnight snack that he craves by thinking of Nancy and the faith she’s expressed in him, and wanting to live up to her image of him, that hits the thematic note of “Love leads you to be a better person.” But you can use minor characters and subplots to hit thematic notes, too. You had planned to put an obstacle in Henry’s path by having his firm suddenly assign him the workload of Don, a colleague who’s suddenly been hit with bird flu and will be out for months. But what if it isn’t bird flu? What if Don’s had a nervous breakdown because his wife has left him? Now you’re hitting a thematic note that warns “Love leaves you vulnerable to severe hurt.” Suppose it’s actually Don who did the leaving – he’s been having an affair with his secretary for months, and now he and she have run off together, leaving everyone else to pick up the messes they left behind them. Now you’ve hit a thematic note of “Love can actually lead you to be a worse person.”
Of course, if you really want it to be bird flu, it can be bird flu. Melodies don’t have to consist of just the notes of a single chord in order to sound musical, and not everything in your work has to relate back to a single central theme. Who says your work can only have one theme, anyways? One reason Shakespeare’s Hamlet has endured as a classic so many centuries is that it has things to say on so many themes, from revenge to political power to sociological conflict between old ways and new ways. Who says your work has to have any theme? A good theme can make a book resonant and memorable, but plenty of books get along just fine without any real theme in particular. (You’d think mystery novels would be about the theme of “crime and punishment,” but surprisingly often, that’s not the case; with ‘cozy mysteries’ in particular, the novel uses crime and punishment as a backdrop, but really has little to say about the subject.)
Whatever you feel is right for your work in terms of theme – one theme, several, none – it’s to your benefit to think about what you’re doing with theme, and what the thematic notes you’re hitting might add up to.
Oh, and when you’re composing melodies, try using different lengths. Whole notes, half notes, and even quarter notes. Just keep putting ’em together until you find something that sounds good, and then just keep doing that until you’ve got the whole melody. Works like a charm.